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Moral Status in Virtue Ethics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 September 2007

John Hacker-Wright
University of Guelph


My contention is that virtue ethics offers an important critique of traditional philosophical conceptions of moral status as well as an alternative view of important moral issues held to depend on moral status. I argue that the scope of entities that deserve consideration depends on our conception of the demands of virtues like justice; which entities deserve consideration emerges from a moral view of a world shaped by that conception. The deepest disputes about moral status depend on conflicting conceptions of justice. I advocate a conception of the virtue of justice that can account for the cases that pose problems for the legalistic views of moral status and discuss what ideal moral debate looks like on this view.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2007

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1 ‘Virtue Theory and Abortion’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 20 (1991), 236. For Hursthouse on the treatment of animals, see her Ethics, Humans, and Other Animals (London: Routledge, 2000), especially chapter six.

2 Ethics, Politics, and Religion: The Collected Philosophical Papers of G.E.M. Anscombe, vol. iii (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), 30.

3 The term ‘field’ comes from Christine Swanton Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 20.

4 ‘Eating Meat and Eating People’, in The Realistic Spirit (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 322.

5 ‘Eating Meat and Eating People’, 326.

6 Lectures on Ethics trans. Peter Heath, ed. Peter Heath and J.B. Schneewind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 212.

7 Moral Status: Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

8 Moral Status, 143.

10 Moral Status, 170–172.

11 ‘Virtue and Reason’ in Mind, Value, and Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 58.

12 I draw this formulation of practical wisdom from Philippa Foot ‘Virtues and Vices’ in Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 5.

13 ‘Virtue Theory and Abortion’, 241.

14 ‘Virtue Theory and Abortion’, 237.

15 ‘Virtue Theory and Abortion’, 236.

16 Cf. Murdoch, Iris, The Sovereignty of Good (New York: Routledge, 1970), 59Google Scholar.

17 Accessing those facts may require entering the moral perspective of another. The fact that this nervous looking individual would take enormous fright at being threatened with a beating and readily hand over his money at such a threat is a fact that is relatively out of reach to a virtuous person; we are aware of it via contact, albeit often indirect, with the vicious perspective of a criminal.

18 The first treatment of this conception of justice occurs in Weil, Simone's ‘Human Personality’ in Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Miles, Siân (New York: Grove Press, 1986), 4978Google Scholar. Cora Diamond explicates and elaborates on Weil in ‘Animals and Injustice’ in Slow Cures and Bad Philosophers, ed. Carl Elliott (Durham: North Carolina Press, 2001). Finally, Mary Midgley has also put forward a version of this conception of justice (without reference to Weil) in ‘Duties Concerning Islands’ in Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 374–387.

19 In saying this, I am disagreeing with T.M. Scanlon, who objects that one can only speak of wronging a creature to which one can justify one's behavior. ‘Justifiability to’ is thus an important moral criterion for him. See What We Owe Each Other (Harvard University Press: 1998), 180. I address this issue below.

20 This does not represent any hostility of virtue ethics towards rights. Simone Weil noted, rightly I think, the absurdity of talking about rights in the context of such an unequal relation. As she puts it ‘rights are always asserted in a tone of contention; and when this tone is adopted, it must rely upon force in the background, or else it will be laughed at’ (‘Human Personality’, 61).

21 ‘Duties Concerning Islands’, 385.

22 Care ethicists, of course, have criticized conceptions of morality taking such a concept of justice to be the central moral concept, suggesting care as a crucial alternative to justice. Yet the idea that justice and care are competing alternatives assumes that the only conception of justice is the traditional rights-based notion. But it is important to expand our conception of justice rather than look for alternatives to it. In ‘Duties Concerning Islands’, Midgley points out ‘[i]f we are told that a certain set of … cases does not involve injustice, our natural thought is that these cases must be trivial’ (380).

23 The danger of paternalism is palpable here; a fully virtuous agent would strive, where relevant, to promote the autonomy of a weak and vulnerable creature, even to the point of its ability to refuse care. Obviously this does not apply in the case of corpses or precious inanimate objects.

25 For a trenchant, in depth critique of capacity-based notions of moral status focused on cognitive disability, see Kittay, Eva FederAt the Margins of Moral PersonhoodEthics 116 (2005), 100131CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

26 Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 20.

27 ‘Eating Meat and Eating People’, 324–326.

28 Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1977), 271.

29 Ecological or hygienic reasons may be important enough to withhold from a given mode of acknowledgment, but convenience would certainly not provide sufficient reason.

30 Being ceremoniously offered to the vultures counts as ‘removing the corpse from vulnerability’ since the corpse will no longer be vulnerable to disrespectful treatment, such as being thrown to the pigs.

31 Schneewind, J.B.The Misfortunes of VirtueEthics, 101 (1990), 63CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Living By The Word (San Diego: Harvest Books, 1989), 4.

33 Living By The Word, 140.

34 Living By The Word, 171.

35 Murdoch, Iris, The Sovereignty of Good (New York: Routledge, 1970), 17Google Scholar.

36 Benhabib, Seyla, ‘The Generalized and Concrete Other’ in Situating the Self (New York: Routledge, 1992Google Scholar).

37 ‘Transcendence without Reality’, Philosophy 80 (2005), 361-384.

38 Walker herself recognizes this combination of receptivity and creativity, when she compares the writer's pen to a microphone (Living By The Word, 170). The microphone is an invention that allows us to isolate a bit of sound and record it. There should then be no oddity about the idea that creativity could be involved in finding out how things are; we need only note that attention is active and perhaps remind ourselves of the creativity involved in scientific experimentation.

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